NHS 111 yet to go live in two out of three sites
Less than a third of England has fully launched the NHS 111 service, with just three weeks to go before the national rollout deadline.
The new non-emergency phone number is due to replace NHS Direct’s 0845 number from 21 March.
However, research by HSJ has found NHS 111 is not yet up and running in 53 per cent of the country, including the whole of the West Midlands, North West, South East Coast and Yorkshire and the Humber.
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In a further 16 per cent of the country, measured by the population served, NHS 111 has only “soft launched” - meaning it receives redirected GP out-of-hours calls but not NHS Direct calls.
Six areas could not confirm a planned full launch date when contacted by HSJ last week. Ten areas were planning to launch fully within four days of the deadline.
NHS 111 services must pass tests by commissioners and the Department of Health before they can go live.
In South East London and North East London and the City, both areas in which NHS Direct is involved in providing the service, the soft launch has been put back by almost a month to 12 March. The reason given in both areas was commissioners’ concerns that call centres would not be staffed adequately to cope with demand over the Easter weekend.
South East London is also yet to get approval for its clinical governance from the DH.
NHS Direct has been put on notice by the DH that it may have to provide contingency services for up to 50 per cent of the country when 111 launches. HSJ has learned that the organisation is yet to hear whether its services will be required.
NHS Direct itself had won nine contracts covering 34 per cent of the country. It told HSJ it has recently begun discussions with NHS and private sector providers to explore options for joint ventures, strategic partnerships and its future organisational form. Its other options are to become a social enterprise or seek foundation status.
The national introduction of NHS 111 has been surrounded by significant controversy since the government announced proposals in August 2010.
In a number of areas where it has already launched, it has been blamed for an increase in demand for other services. An evaluation by Sheffield University of the first four pilot sites found there was a statistically significant increase in incidents attended by ambulances.
Meanwhile, unions and others have made repeated calls for the process, which has involved 44 separate local procurements, to be slowed down.
Director of the Ambulance Service Network Jo Webber told HSJ the achievement of the rollout was “amazing” considering the commissioning system reorganisation occurring alongside it.
Ms Webber added: “If [the rollout] doesn’t go perfectly right it would be very easy to rubbish it but it’s been phenomenally complicated.”
A spokesman for the DH said with the exception of Devon and Leicestershire and Rutland, which had previously been granted extensions, the country was “working towards the March deadline”.
“If sites are not ready to launch, the public will still be able to call NHS Direct until NHS 111 is available in their area,” he added.